Greetings, readers. A persistent theme in horror stories is that of Guilt Made Flesh. One has committed a crime (whether legal or against nature), and that crime returns in physical form to torment and punish the individual who committed it. A fantastic example is Frankenstein; Victor failed to show his created man the appropriate love of a parent to a child, and is forced to witness the deaths of his friends and family at his “child’s” hands. And while Surrey-born author Graham Masterton may have gotten his start editing the British edition of Penthouse and writing how-to sex manuals, once he turned his pen to horror he created some pretty groovy nightmare stuff, much of it in the vein of Lovecraft and Co. Masterton’s most popular and famous novel is also his first, and takes the Guilt Made Flesh theme pretty far — it becomes White Guilt Made Flesh, as the destruction of the Native Americans during the European conquest of America threatens retribution in kind. This is the story of Misquamacus, a Wampanoag Medicine Man (who first appeared in the August Derleth/H.P. Lovecraft “collaboration” The Lurker at the Threshold in 1945) who commits suicide in the face of Dutch settlement of Manhattan and sends his manitou forward in time to punish the White Man.
What’s a manitou, you ask? Manitou is a term used to designate spiritual entities among the Algonquin groups; not necessarily ghosts or gods, per se, but akin to the Kami of Japanese tradition. Everything — every plant, every rock, every lake, river, waterfall, tree, person, and created object has a manitou residing inside it, and these manitou need to be placated and bargained with. One would consult the manitou of a particular lake before fishing there, and then make appeasement to the manitou of the fish you’ve caught.
So let’s take a look at these Manitou stories, shall we?
In Masterton’s original novel The Manitou (supposedly written in a single week in 1975), we’re introduced to Karen Tandy, a young woman living in New York City. Karen wakes up one day with an odd lump on the back of her neck, which quickly begins to grow. Fearing a tumor, Karen sees a specialist at the hospital, who takes a series of X-Rays. The specialist, Dr. Hughes, can tell that the lump on Karen’s neck is not a tumor, but he’s baffled as to what it is, until a random glance through a medical book causes him to realize that the growth in Karen’s neck is a developing fetus.
Looking for spiritual guidance, Karen turns to Harry Erskine — the Amazing Erskine, a fortune teller in Greenwich Village. Harry is a sham and a con artist, though, making his living by turning over Tarot cards for rich old ladies with guilty consciences. Something about Karen, and the way the cards reacted to her, draws Harry’s attention though, and he begins investigating her peculiar malady.
With the help of a genuinely psychic friend and an anthropology professor, Harry eventually figures out that the manitou, or spirit, of a Native American Medicine Man is being reborn, growing itself a new body to inhabit out of Karen’s flesh. With the aid of one of the last Sioux Medicine Men, a cynical realtor named Singing Rock, this particular manitou is identified as that of Misquamacus, the most powerful Medicine Man to ever live. This realization almost sends Singing Rock running, fearful of being identified as an “Uncle Tom” by the vengeful Misquamacus. However, he’s persuaded to stay by the promise of $30,000 and the fact that the blast of X-Rays Misquamacus got hit with while in “the womb” left him deformed and weakened.
Pulling himself out of Karen’s back, Misquamacus sets about seeking vengeance against the “white devils” who took the North American continent from its rightful inhabitants. To do this, he prepares to summon “He-Who-Hungers-In-The-Pit,” a powerful demonic spirit of a family known as “The Great Old Ones.” In the first printing of the book, Misquamacus is killed, like so many of his people, by disease, contracted during his time in Karen Tandy. In later editions, he is defeated when Harry manages to call upon the manitou of the White Man’s Technology.
The Manitou is seriously the best piece of 1970s horror fiction I’ve read. Fantastic pacing, lovable, memorable characters, a brilliant supernatural threat and a growing aura of dread that keeps you turning pages. Masterton is wonderfully descriptive in all the right places, and vague enough for our shadowed imaginations to take over in the places where we want the shadows to hide what crawls in them. Misquamacus is a vague and frightening figure, a conjuror of unspeakable demons of the North American Continent’s unknown past, and you really wonder if Harry Erskine and Singing Rock stand a snowball’s chance of stopping him.
In 1978, The Manitou was adapted into a feature film of the same name, directed by William Girdler. While the story remained fairly faithful, some changes were made. I think the decision to make Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) into Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis, believe it or not)’s ex-girlfriend makes his involvement in her little problem more believable, and raises the stakes for Harry quite a bit. Good change. On the other hand, they took the savvy, cynical Singing Rock of the book and made him a simple Dakota farmer (played by Syrian-born Michael Ansara, best known to my generation as the voice of Mr. Freeze in all animated Batman media from 1992 to the present) who agrees to help in exchange for a $10,000 donation to the Indian Education Fund. Burgess Meredith (Mickey from the ROCKY franchise, the Penguin opposite Adam West’s Batman) pulls a fantastic turn in a supporting role as anthropologist Dr. Snow.
THE MANITOU is memorable from a practical FX perspective, as it marks the first time a monster (or Medicine Man) was portrayed via full-body prosthetics, as opposed to a rubber suit. Misquamacus (rendered here a dwarf, rather than a paraplegic, due to the limits of make-up effects) is portrayed by Felix Silla and Joe Gieb, and is one creepy dead-eyed little horror, with a skin texture like wet leather.
The film ends on a somewhat hokey note, with special effects that look particularly dated and cheesy today, but it involves Susan Strasberg sitting up topless and firing lasers out of her fingers to send Misquamacus to Hell, so who am I to complain? I’ll never turn down an eyeful of bare breasts.
In 1979, Masterton returns to the concept of manitou in The Revenge of the Manitou. Misquamacus is back and more powerful than ever, possessing (rather than growing a new body out of) a young boy named Toby, and he’s not alone. He’s summoned along twenty-one other manitou, all belonging to some of the most powerful Medicine Men to ever live in North America. These twenty-two wonder workers have their sights set on fulfilling a prophecy called “The Day of Dark Stars,” in which…well, I’ll let Masterton explain it:
The day of the dark stars begins at noon and lasts through to the following noon. It’s supposed to be 24 hours of chaos and butchery and torture, the day when the Indian people have their revenge for hundreds of years of treachery and slaughter and rape, all in one huge massacre.
To accomplish this, Misquamacus and Co. must summon up one of the most deadly and powerful demons to ever prowl the earth’s shadowy corners — a great and unholy mass of fog and tentacles known by the suspiciously familiar-sounding name “Ka-tua-la-hu.” Opposing them are Erskine and Singing Rock once more, with Toby’s father Neil along for the ride, intent on freeing his son and proving his own sanity.
Compared to the first novel, The Revenge of the Manitou comes across as fairly threadbare and listless, retreading some old ground and not really giving us much in the way of new ideas. What we do get, though, is increased gore and sex, including a sequence where Misquamacus animates Neil’s bedsheets and causes them to rape his wife, and a scene wherein Erskine and Singing Rock examine the body of Mrs. Novato, Toby’s teacher, who has been offered as a sexual sacrifice to the “messenger-demon” used to convey summons to Ka-tua-la-hu, and who has a body temperature of about 3,000 degrees below zero. Buh.
That’s all for right now, readers. Tune in next time to find out how Misquamacus’ plans further unfold…